The Constellation Empire Strikes Back

by Rand Simberg on May 14, 2012 · 15 comments

in Space

Constellation, the Bush administration’s plan to return to the moon, was canceled a couple years ago. But not all of Constellation was canceled. The Orion crew module, designed to go to lunar orbit and back, survives, with plans to test fly on a Delta IV rocket in a couple years, and Congress, eager to preserve the Space Shuttle jobs base, demanded that NASA reinstitute a new heavy-lift launch vehicle to replace the canceled Ares V with the Space Launch System. So at this point, despite the cancellation, Constellation continues to waste money, except for the Ares I, the new crew rocket that NASA was developing. Derived from Space Shuttle and Apollo hardware, it used a new five-segment version of a shuttle solid rocket booster (SRB) as a first stage, with a new LOX/hydrogen upper stage. At the time of cancellation, it had been experiencing development issues, missing performance, cost and schedule milestones.

Now it looks like even it could be resurrected.

Last February, ATK, the manufacturer of the SRBs, made a joint announcement with Astrium, the company that builds the European Ariane V rocket, that they were proposing a new rocket, renamed Liberty, similar to Ares 1, except that instead of developing a new upper stage, it would use the Ariane first-stage core as a second stage atop the SRB. The idea was that with two proven existing stages, the development cost would be low and the schedule rapid, with a first flight planned for 2015. There’s sense of deja vu here — the Ares 1 was advertised as “Safe, Simple, Soon.” Here’s the old web site, courtesy of the Wayback Machine. Many were skeptical at the time, both in terms of how much sense it made technically, and whether or not there was a business case for it. The team received no funding from NASA, but it signed a Space Act Agreement with the agency last fall to do studies on such a system for the commercial crew program with its own funds.

On Wednesday, the results of its study were announced at a space technology conference in Los Angeles. It was no longer just a proposed new rocket looking for payloads and funding, but a full new commercial venture with several team members to provide launch services for crew and cargo, including a new crew capsule, and new escape system that has already been partially tested by NASA and ATK at the Wallops launch range in Virginia.

How does it differ from Ares 1 (and its Orion capsule)?

As was announced last year, the first stage seems to be exactly the same — it will be the five-segment SRB that was expanded from the original four-segment version that the Shuttle used in order to lift an upper stage that had grown from the original Ares 1 upper-stage concept when NASA switched from the higher performance but more costly Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME) to a new, cheaper engine called the J2-X (it is derived from the venerable J-2 design used on the upper stage of the Saturn V for Apollo). This SRB is the same booster type that is planned to be used for the Space Launch System, scheduled to debut in its Block 1 (70 metric ton) version in 2017 (it will use two of them). But unlike the new second stage for Ares, the second stage of Liberty is an almost-off-the-shelf Ariane V core (the Ariane V launcher utilizes strap-on solid rocket motors to augment its lift-off thrust). Ariane V was designed from the beginning to carry humans, because one of its planned payloads was the proposed French Hermes space plane, which was later cancelled. It is a LOX/hydrogen stage using a single Vulcain engine of about 300,000 lbf of thrust, which gimbals for pitch and yaw control. Roll control is provided by cold-gas helium thrusters on the periphery of the stage, and presumably, as an upper stage, this system will provide that function for the entire vehicle until first-stage separation, as the SRB itself has no intrinsic roll control (the Shuttle controlled roll by gimballing the nozzles on the two SRBs attached to its external tank).

One issue that must be dealt with is the fact that as a first stage, the Vulcain engine starts before liftoff, whereas as an upper stage, it will have to be “air started” after separating from the SRB first stage. One of the reasons that the SSME was abandoned by NASA for the J2-X was because, as a very complex staged-combustion engine, it required ground-support equipment on the pad to bring it up to thrust, and there would have been difficulties with an air start. Snecma, the manufacturer of the simpler gas-generator Vulcain, believes that it can incorporate any systems needed into the vehicle to allow it to ignite post separation.

ATK claims that thrust oscillation, a major development issue for the Ares 1, is mitigated by the new configuration, because the Arian stage has different inertial characteristics, and won’t resonantly “couple” with the five-segment solid vibrations the way the Ares 1 upper stage did (there were concerns for that vehicle that the shaking could make it difficult for the crew to see gauges or operate controls, and might even injure them and damage the upper stage and capsule). However, there remains at least one area of uncertainty. The five-segment version of the SRB has never flown. It has been statically fired on a horizontal test stand, but there is no direct data of what its vibration and dynamic characteristics will be in free flight. However, in response to my question about it, ATK claims that the combination of the static test firing and the test flight of the Ares 1-X vehicle a couple years ago, which flew a four-segment version with a “dummy” fifth segment for testing aerodynamics, allowed them to calibrate their models and give them confidence that their simulations will be valid in a five-segment vehicle.

But the biggest announcement yesterday was the new crew capsule and the abort system.

The capsule will be similar to Orion, except that it will utilize a composite structure, rather than metal, and it will have a less robust heat shield, because it is designed to come back only from low earth orbit, and not from deep space, which would require dissipation of twice the energy during entry.

For abort, Ares/Orion used a traditional launch tower on top of the capsule with solid rockets (called a “tractor” configuration) that would rapidly pull the capsule away from the vehicle in the event of a problem. The tower would be jettisoned once safely past any need for an abort to improve payload performance. The ATK capsule uses a boost protection shield on top of the capsule, with side-mounted solid motors for escape, which reduces total height of the stacked launch system (ceiling clearances in the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center were an issue for the Ares 1 with its tower). It would also be jettisoned at a safe altitude.

The total vehicle would be stacked in the VAB and moved to the Shuttle launch pad 39-B using a mobile launch platform (the Saturn/Shuttle MLP is currently being modified for the Space Launch System, so it’s not clear if they’ll be able to use it, or have to build their own). Kent Rominger, the Vice President of Business Development for ATK (and former Chief of the NASA Astronaut Office), who led the press conference, said that they were looking for government satellite markets. But there was no discussion of what pads they might use at Vandenberg Air Force Base, the west-coast launch site needed to get to high-inclination orbits where many remote-sensing, weather and spy satellites reside.

The emphasis of the sales pitch for the program was clearly crew safety, with claims of only a 1 in 1200 chance of loss of crew, due to the supposed intrinsic reliability of both the SRB and Ariane, in combination with the abort system. This will be a key issue, because the team admits that they won’t be able to beat SpaceX’s stated price of $20M per seat for a Dragon ride, though Rominger did tell me that they’ll beat the Russian’s price of $62M. Beyond that, he was unwilling to stipulate a price, for what he said were competitive reasons. However, if it carries seven crew (as is planned for the other Commercial Crew competitors) that would put an upper limit of $400M per flight in their cost for them to make any profit at all. How much less than that they’ll be able to charge for satellite launch will determine whether or not they are competitive against the Atlas, Delta and Falcon. It is also unclear what would happen to their costs were the Space Launch System to be canceled, and they would have to carry the full overhead of SRB manufacturing facilities on their own rather than splitting them with the other program.

Which brings us to the politics.

While Liberty now has a full-fledged business plan and proposal for a commercial system, one thing that hasn’t changed since the initial announcement last year is that it’s still looking for money. Rominger said that with proper funding, they could fly by 2015, but left to their own discretionary resources, it might not happen until the next decade. So much will depend on how much money Congress gives NASA for the commercial crew program, and how favorably the agency looks upon the new proposal, relative to the existing competitors of Boeing, SpaceX, Sierra Nevada and Blue Origin.

This past week, some congressional Republicans have been acting like socialists (as they seem prone to do when it comes to space), demanding that NASA not continue the competition, but instead narrow down to a single contractor next year, despite the fact that NASA says that this would double the program costs and delay it.

The question is, if NASA were to go to a single contractor now, who would it be, and does Congress have a preference? Awarding a new contract to ATK would be a completion of the restoration of the costly and unsustainable Constellation program. Unfortunately, the people in Congress who supported that program, and were angry when it was canceled, are less concerned with cost or progress than they are with the jobs provided in their districts and states, and they’d be very happy to see such a restoration happen. They would argue (with talking points provided by ATK) that Liberty has synergy with the Space Launch System, that it will be the safest solution, and that it promotes foreign cooperation. And unfortunately, I heard last week from a fairly highly placed government employee in a position to know that the timing of Wednesday’s announcement was no coincidence. So stay tuned.

Organic Marble May 14, 2012 at 8:38 pm

I am not sure where this myth about pad GSE for starting the SSME came from. There was nothing like that. The system had to be manipulated to get the inlet pressures and temperatures into the correct range for starting the engine, but there was no intrinsic reason why that could not be done in flight. I think the restart issue was a much bigger deal.

RlynH May 14, 2012 at 10:03 pm

The human race needs to get into space permanently, and America, with its ideals of freedom, should be in the vanguard. I’m convinced statist government cannot do it, but must leave it to free market entrepreneurs, who will do it for future profits. That’s the only motivation that has ever worked efficiently.

Brad May 14, 2012 at 10:36 pm

What possible advantage does that abortion, the Liberty rocket, have over a plain stock Ariane V launch stack?

Orion May 14, 2012 at 11:06 pm

The entire concept is a joke.

We’re still stuffing a few guys in a can and firing them off. Only now, instead of THREE guys in a can, we’re stuffing SEVEN guys in the can and making the rocket REALLY big!

We’ve come SO far since 1969. Not.

let NASA’s manned spaceflight division die and let the private contractors do their thing – bring us true manned spaceflight and perhaps even a spaceship instead of a can flying a ballistic trajectory.


Georg Felis May 15, 2012 at 12:04 am

So in the event of any failure during any phase of the first stage solid rocket firing, is there a way to terminate thrust to the first stage? I.e. if something goes wrong during the first stage burn and you have to fire the capsule to escape, will it become a race between the still-firing and soon to become a bomb first stage and the capsule “eject” system to see if the astronauts get away? As I recall, the Shuttle SRBs thrust termination system involved blowing away the top part of the SRB, which is going to be just a tad difficult with the Constellation, since the rest of the payload is sitting up top, along with a few hundred pounds of organics.

Vladislaw May 15, 2012 at 7:12 am

Excellent article Rand, I have sure been curious if ATK’s checkbook for lobbying is going to payoff for liberty. At 400 million they would beat the Russians on price by 6 million, 63 million per seat for the Soyuz and 57 million for liberty.

I predicted a few years ago that Russia would drop their prices once American domestic firms start operations. SpaceX has stated 20 million per seat but I believe they will underprice the Soyuz just enough to say they are cheaper and then the price will start to spiral down with each new contract.

So ATK can not look to being able to beat the Russian’s price for very long. Once NASA does not have to buy them seats Russia will be back to selling them to Space Adventures and the prices will drop back to the 20-35 million range.

Ellen May 15, 2012 at 10:10 am

Pigs in spaaaace! Or pork, at least.

Coastal Ron May 15, 2012 at 11:02 am

There are still a number of unknowns regarding pricing for all of the Commercial Crew companies, and for NASA itself.

Will NASA just buy seats, which would be the airline model? Or will they rent the vehicle and fill it anyway they want – the car rental model?

So far the requirement for crew rotation is three people, so seven passenger vehicles provide excess capacity. But NASA has said they want to expand to a seven person crew when possible, and Commercial Crew vehicles will allow them to do that. However that would likely only mean a need for four crew per rotation for NASA, and three for Russia’s Soyuz.

There has also been talk about sending extra people up on a crew-rotation flight, where they would just stay for the few days it takes to change crew shifts. Kind of like what the Shuttle offered, and that could be technical people engineers and technicians, scientists coming to examine or work on an experiment, or sightseers like politicians, media reporters and teachers. I think this will happen with a car rental model (rent the vehicle), but not an airline model (buy the seat).

SpaceX has talked about a $20M/seat price, although this seems to apply to a full seven person flight. That would make sense, since that would be $140M/flight, which is only slightly above what SpaceX is charging under the current CRS contract for cargo ($133M/flight). Same capsule and rocket, but different interior systems for crew.

ATK has said they were shooting for around $180M/flight for their rocket, which without a capsule would equal $60M/seat for three passengers, or $45M/seat for four. Add in the cost of developing, testing and building the capsule, and it becomes apparent that ATK/Astrium/LM are going to have a hard time making money in a competitive marketplace. That is true for the other Commercial Crew providers, as the ISS demand is pretty low. I think everyone is using the ISS as their loss leader, and plan to expand the market with Bigelow and other future demand.

But the other Commercial Crew providers have the advantage that their rockets are already in production for payload-only launches, so their cost structure already has a floor price. Liberty doesn’t have any other customers, and if they don’t get any payload-only flights, how will they compete on price for crew flights?

Their business plan is either highly speculative, or they know of a large market demand that is not being met. I think it’s the former.

Borecrawler May 15, 2012 at 2:29 pm

Mr. Simberg,
Did ATK do something mean to you as a child? You use every opportunity to blast them. The posters here are not much better (I realize I am not among friends on this site). Do you seriously think ATK (or any responsible rocket maker) would deliberately allow a flawed product to go into space? It would make no business sense. And why should we believe you on the issue of thrust oscillation? I think it is highly unlikely that ATK presented you with their proprietary test data. I also believe they understand the thrust of an abort system well enough to ensure it will work as intended. Please, if you choose to attack them, stick to the things you understand, like cost (although, I do not agree with your numbers here, either). To attack a contractor simply because they have been involved with the government in the past is very petty. Liberty is as commercial as the Falcon 9 (actually it is even more of a truly commercial endeavor, since they have received NO money from NASA-or should I say SpaceX is more like a government contractor? Something to think about.

Coastal Ron May 15, 2012 at 11:44 pm

Borecrawler said:

“Do you seriously think ATK (or any responsible rocket maker) would deliberately allow a flawed product to go into space? It would make no business sense.”

For myself, I assume that Liberty would be as safe as the Shuttle was. The major safety issue is because of the use of the Solid Rocket Motor (SRM), mainly because it can’t be shut off after it’s lit, and it does have vibration issues.

What I am the most suspicious about is the business case for the crew version of Liberty. ATK keeps pushing the idea that Liberty will be “the safest”, but that clearly is not something they can back up. Safe enough? Probably. The safest? No.

So other than “safety”, what do they have going for them?

They compete with Delta IV Heavy for large government payloads, but ULA has been lobbying for the Air Force to buy large blocks of launches to lock in “savings”, which would lock out not only the SpaceX Falcon Heavy, but also Liberty. Liberty can’t launch from the west coast without a huge infrastructure investment, and that would be hard to make back in profit without a lot of launches. If SpaceX does become a heavy-lift competitor to Delta IV Heavy, that means even less market for Liberty – and it doesn’t have an advantage in either payload or price.

The business case for the commercial market is just as fuzzy. For payload only missions, who would use Liberty? Ariane V customers? Those are typically dual-launched, and even ESA has a hard time matching up two payloads per flight.

Commercial Crew is just as fuzzy too. Liberty is the largest rocket of all the competitors, and the capsule likely won’t be cheap either. I have no doubt it will work – given enough time and money – but my biggest question is whether it will be as cost-effective as CST-100, Dream Chase or Dragon? I assume all of them will be safe enough too, so what is the competitive advantage that Liberty will have?

Because of all those open questions, and the fact that ATK has never been a commercial launch provider before, I don’t want to see NASA choose Liberty and then find out that it can’t survive without NASA business, and Congress is forced to subsidize them like they do ULA.

Mike Lorrey May 15, 2012 at 11:03 pm

ATK is simply the front end of the ICBM-industrial complex rent seeking for corporate welfare to keep building inefficient, large, heavy, expensive solid boosters out in the boondocks. Liberty is NOT as commercial as the Falcon 9, and your claim they have received no money from NASA is utterly farcical, given NASA spent $11 billion, count em ELEVEN BILLION DOLLARS of taxpayer money on Ares I-X which did nothing but launch a plastic model of an upper stage and capsule on top of an extra SRB they had lying around. Can you say MASSIVE GRAFT AND CORRUPTION? Ares I= Liberty rocket. ATK can keep putting lipstick on that pig and calling it a supermodel, but its still a pig.

Coastal Ron May 15, 2012 at 11:53 pm

Borecrawler said:

“Liberty is as commercial as the Falcon 9 (actually it is even more of a truly commercial endeavor, since they have received NO money from NASA-or should I say SpaceX is more like a government contractor? Something to think about.”

The term “commercial” in regards to Commercial Crew means that NASA will be paying for services, as opposed to building and owning their own transportation system. It doesn’t matter whether the customer is the government or a private entity, if the service is open to any qualified customers, and they are buying tickets, then it’s commercial.

In regards to NASA paying for part of the development of the systems (the companies have to put in their own money too), this is not unusual in the commercial product world. In it’s basic form, NASA has a unique service that they want performed, and they want to control how that service is provided.

It just so happens that once that service is created, other entities could have a use for it too, and NASA is OK with their providers selling services on the open market. NASA could have just put out a competitive bid that said “tell us how much it will cost to get our NASA passengers to the ISS safely”, but NASA wanted more control over how each company met their requirements. That’s what NASA is paying for, and I’ve seen that happen in the commercial world too.

joe May 16, 2012 at 9:56 am

Vladislaw May 15, 2012 at 7:12 am
“I have sure been curious if ATK’s checkbook for lobbying is going to payoff for liberty.”

Sure is a lucky thing pure and commercial companies like Space X do not do lobbying. Otherwise I am sure you would not like them either.

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